Mellitus (DNB00)

MELLITUS (d. 624), first bishop of London and third archbishop of Canterbury, was leader of the second band of missionaries sent by Pope Gregory the Great to reinforce Augustine at Canterbury in 601. According to Bæda he was of noble birth (Hist. Eccles. lib. ii. cap. 7), and he was styled abbot in Pope Gregory's letters (Ep. lib. xi. cap. 54, &c.) It has been suggested that he was abbot either of St. Andrew's on the Cælian Hill, an office previously held by Augustine, or of the church in the Lateran assigned to the Benedictines (Stubbs, Dict. Christian Biog.); but the title may merely designate his relation to the band of monks who accompanied him to England (Ep. lib. xi. 54, 59, &c.) Extant commendatory letters from the pope, written on behalf of Mellitus and his associates, serve to mark the route which they followed. Gregory's epistles are addressed to the bishops of Vienne, Arles, Lyons, Gap, Toulon, Marseilles, Chalons on the Saone, Metz, Paris, Rouen, Angers, to the kings of the Franks, Theodoric, Theodebert, and Clothair, and to Queen Brunichild (ib. lib. xi. 54–62). Those of Mellitus's companions whose names are preserved were Laurentius, who had already been in Britain, Justus, Paulinus, and Rufinianus, who came for the first time. By their hands Gregory sent ‘all things necessary for divine worship and the service of the church, namely sacred vessels and altar-cloths, ornaments for the churches, and vestments for the priests and clerks, likewise relics of the holy apostles and martyrs and many books’ (Hist. Eccles. i. 29). Elmham, writing in the fifteenth century, gives a list of these gifts and books (Hist. Mon. S. Aug. Cant. ed. Hardwick, pp. 96 sqq.) Tradition affirms that two copies of the ‘Gospels,’ one at Corpus College, Cambridge, the other at the Bodleian Library, and a psalter in ‘Cott. MS. Vesp.’ A. L. (Wanley in Hickes's Thesaurus, ii. 172; Bosworth, A.-S. Gospels, Pref. p. xi), were brought by Mellitus; but all these manuscripts belong to a later date (Palæog. Soc. Facsimiles, vol. ii. pl. 19, p. 33; Macray, Annals of the Bodleian, p. 24). Mellitus was further charged with the delivery of a number of letters to Augustine and others of Gregory's friends in Britain. Gregory did not hear from Mellitus as soon as he expected, and he wrote another letter (Hist. Eccles. i. 30) asking for news of his journey and giving an answer to Augustine's question on the propriety of using the temples of idols for divine worship. This letter is wrongly dated 17 June; Mellitus did not leave Rome till 22 June (Haddan and Stubbs, iii. 38).

Augustine consecrated Mellitus and Justus bishops (Hist. Eccles. ii. 3) between 601 and 604, the year of Augustine's death. Before his consecration Mellitus probably joined either the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul (afterwards St. Augustine's) or the archiepiscopal community at Christchurch. As bishop he was sent to preach to the province of the East Saxons, which Bæda describes as divided from the kingdom of Kent by the river Thames and bounded on the east by the sea, having London for its metropolis—‘a city situated on the bank of the Thames, the mart of many nations resorting to it by land and sea.’ The king of the East Saxons was Sabert, the nephew of Æthelbert, king of Kent, and subject to him. Mellitus was thus able to win his support, and when the work of conversion was sufficiently far advanced, King Æthelbert built the church of St. Paul in London, where Mellitus and his successors were to have their episcopal see.

The genuineness of many of the charters in which Mellitus's name occurs is ‘more than questionable’ (Stubbs, Dict. of Christian Biog, s. v.); but to the grant of Tillingham in Essex (Kemble, Codex Dipl., No. 982), although bearing marks of later garbling, Bishop Stubbs is willing to assign some measure of authenticity. Tillingham is undoubtedly a very early possession of St. Paul's. Mellitus joined in Archbishop Laurentius's letter to the bishops of the Irish and British churches proposing union, and urging compliance with the customs of the Roman church, and subsequently returned to Rome to attend a council (27 Feb. 610) held, Bæda says, to secure the peace of the monastic order (‘de vita monachorum et quiete ordinaturus’). Mellitus brought back the council's decrees to England, besides letters from Pope Boniface IV to Archbishop Laurentius, King Æthelbert, and the whole clergy and people of the English. The decrees and the letters are in all probability lost, though some are extant in fictitious forms. The letter to Æthelbert, almost certainly fictitious (Stubbs, Dict. of Christian Biog. s. v.), is preserved in William of Malmesbury (Gesta Pontiff. i. §30) and in Eadmer (Hist. Nov. ed. Rule, p. 261). It was first produced in 1072 in support of the claims of Canterbury to supremacy over York (Haddan and Stubbs, iii. 65). Equally spurious is the bull of Boniface IV, dated 27 Feb. 611, in which Mellitus is mentioned (ib. p. 67).

Æthelbert's son Eadbald, on his father's death in 616, rejected the new religion. Sabert died at the same time; his sons refused to be converted, and granted free liberty to the people under their government to serve idols. Mellitus for a while pursued his ministrations, subject to the taunts of the young princes, who, watching him celebrate mass, asked for the white bread which he had been wont to give to their father, and which they saw him give to the people. To this he replied that they must first seek salvation through baptism, and he declined to comply with their wishes on any other conditions. He was consequently banished, and went to Kent, where he found Laurentius and Justus in like difficulties. Mellitus and Justus took refuge in Gaul, but Eadbald was soon afterwards converted and recalled them a year later. But the East Saxons remained refractory, and the Londoners refused to receive Mellitus as their bishop. In 619 Laurentius died, and Mellitus succeeded him as archbishop. He never received the pall (Dict. of Christian Biog. loc. cit.), but Bæda reports that he received letters of exhortation from Pope Boniface V. These are not extant, though reference seems to have been made to them in 805 (Haddan and Stubbs, iii. 71, 560).

Mellitus consecrated a church to the Blessed Virgin in the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul, which had been built by King Eadbald. On the occasion of a great fire in Canterbury, which raged round ‘the place of the four crowned martyrs,’ he was borne thither by his servants; and Bæda reports that in answer to his fervent prayers a strong wind immediately arose which drew the flames southward and saved the city. He died, after much suffering from gout, on 24 April 624, and was buried, like his predecessors, in the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul. Legend ascribes the foundation of St. Peter's, Westminster, to Mellitus (Luard, Lives of Edward the Confessor, v. 2057 sqq.), but it is unsupported by any historical evidence. Further details of Mellitus's life, recorded in Elmham, are equally untrustworthy.

Hardy (Cat. of Materials, i. 219, 220) supplies a list of manuscript lives which do not add anything but legendary matter to the account of Mellitus given by Bæda, who derived his information from Gregory's letters and from traditions known to Nothelm, a priest of London in the middle of the eighth century.

[See Bæda's Historia Ecclesiastica, bk. i. 29, 30, ii. 3–7; other letters of Pope Gregory in Gregorii Epistolæ, Op. ii. Of modern writers, see Bishop Stubbs on Mellitus in the Dictionary of Christian Biography; and Haddan and Stubbs's Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents, vol. iii.; Kemble's Codex Diplomaticus.]

M. B.